The Porrajmos, literally “the Devouring,” is the term the Romani people use to describe the genocidal wave of terror known to most of the world as the Holocaust. While estimates of the total number of so-called “Gypsies” (the dark-skinned Roma, Sinti and other peoples who migrated to Europe from the Indian subcontinent centuries ago) killed during the Second World War vary from 500,000 to 1.5 million, records show nearly 22,000 died at Auschwitz before the notorious Nazi death camp was liberated on Jan. 27, 1945.
Nearly every Romani man, woman and child who survived internment in Czech-run camps near Hodonín (Moravia) and Lety (Bohemia) — now the site of a controversial pig farm — later perished in the so-called “Gypsy family camp” at Auschwitz-Birkenau before its liberation by the Soviet Army, 67 years ago this Friday. Countless more were killed in extrajudicial killings.
“The percentage of Roma killed in the so-called Czech lands — the mass murder of the ethnic Czech Roma — was almost ‘perfect,’ almost total,” Markus Pape, a German-born human rights activist who for more than a decade has worked closely with the local Committee for the Redress of the Romani Holocaust (VPORH), told Czech Position in an interview on the anniversary of the Auschwitz liberation, noting that a staggering “95 percent of the Czech-born Romani population” perished in the war.
Historians believe that the vast majority of Romani victims were in fact slaughtered outside the death camps — killed with a bullet to the head and tossed in a roadside ditch or buried in shallow graves in the fields and forests where they had sought refuge. Einsatzgruppen (mobile “task forces”) killed tens of thousands of Roma in the German-occupied eastern territories; these victims were left out of the Nazi’s otherwise meticulous records.
“The generally accepted [conservative] figure is that half a million Roma were killed in the Second World War. In Auschwitz — the main site of their systemic killing — there were 22,000 Roma victims,” Pape said. “This shows that most were killed in the forests, during local massacres [pogroms] or by the Wehrmacht — who often justified it as necessary to purge territory behind the front of possible spies. Therefore, there is no exact number; there is no list of names, as it was done without any administration.”
The Porrajmos as a ‘historical footnote’
The horrors of the death camps have been exhaustively documented. However, the wartime fate of the Roma — who, like Europe’s Jewish population, were persecuted for centuries before being singled out for extinction by the Nazis along racial lines — is less widely known or understood; their tremendous suffering and loss often reduced to little more than a historical footnote. An estimated 70 percent of Europe’s Romani population died in the “Devouring,” yet no Roma were called to testify at the post-war Nuremberg Trials — and no one spoke there on their behalf.
While the fate of the Roma may now seem inevitable, in the earliest days of the Third Reich, their origins posed a problem for Hitler’s racial ideologues. Nazi anthropologists knew that the Roma had arrived in Europe from India and believed them to be descendents of the original mythical “Aryan” invaders of the subcontinent, who returned to Europe.While the fate of the Roma may now seem inevitable, in the earliest days of the Third Reich, their origins posed a problem for Hitler’s racial ideologues.
So Nazi racialist Hans Gunther found a justification for measures already long in place to control “the Gypsy plague.” If the Roma were no less “Aryan” than the Germans, he theorized, their supposed “inherent criminal character” must have stemmed from having mingled with “inferior” races over centuries of nomadic life.
In 1933, after Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany, the Nazis introduced a law to legalize eugenic sterilization, to control population growth among “Gypsies and most of the Germans of black color.” In 1939, the Nazi’s Office of Racial Hygiene issued a statement saying, “All Gypsies should be treated as hereditarily sick [...] the aim should therefore be the elimination — without hesitation —of this defective element in the population.”
The following year, at a concentration camp in Buchenwald, 250 Romani children were used as human guinea pigs to test cyanide gas crystals. In later years, adult Roma were used as subjects in cruel experiments conducted at Buchenwald on the effects of drinking sea water on human health.
But even in January 1942, when the Nazi bureaucrats decided on the “final solution” regarding the “Jewish problem” — i.e., through mass extermination in concentration camps — the so-called “pure Gypsies” (like the more integrated and well-off Sinti peoples) initially weren’t targeted for extinction along racial lines; they even continued to serve in the Germany army. (The Sinti were typically traders and merchants; their language is akin to Yiddish, in that it is nearly a German dialect; its grammatical structure follows that of German although most words have a common root with the Romani language.)
But before the close of 1942, SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler, the principal executor of the “Final Solution,” gave orders that all Romani candidates for extermination be transported to Auschwitz; and in November 1943, expanded the order: all “Gypsies and part Gypsies” were be treated “on the same level as Jews and placed in concentration camps.”
“Contrary to the fate of the Jews, Roma and Sinti were still taken into the German army until 1942 and only then did Himmler give the order to deport all the Roma and Sinti to Auschwitz, to the so-called ‘Zigeunerlager’ [Gypsy camp] — no matter what way of life they led, but only on the basis of their race,” said Pape, who has done extensive research on the Romani Holocaust and helped gather the testimony of survivors, in particular from Czech-run camps.
“On Dec. 16, 1942, Himmler sent a letter to all the authorities it concerned saying that the deportation of the Roma and Sinti should concern all of them — on the basis of their origin, as co-called inadaptable people. So, in the end, this was genocide. Sometimes the Czech Roma complained that they were not among the ‘inadaptable’ or criminals. But in the end, the Nazis made no distinctions,” Pape told Czech Position.
The pig farm
The vast majority of Romani people living in what is today the Czech Republic are descended from Slovak Roma; their ancestors transferred here to the Czech lands in Communist-era resettlement programs. “That’s the reason why there is such a weak protest against the Lety pig farm today; most of the Roma here today have their origin in Slovakia … where 90 percent of the population survived. The Fascist puppet government there focused mainly on the property and deportations of Jews,” Pape said. “Slovakia was, at that time, a very agricultural state, and the Roma were needed in the fields for seasonal work.”
Czech officials have been slow to acknowledge the wartime persecution of the Roma, and have come under unwelcome pressure from the European Parliament and other international organization. Not only do precious few memorials exist to honor the memory of those killed in the war, efforts to remove the pig farm from the Lety site, the largest Czech-run camp — where over 1,300 Roma were interned at a time — have been in vain.‘Someone invented a new phrase to avoid saying the term “concentration camp”; this shows there is a strong will to deny what really happened.’
“In the last declaration by the Czech government concerning the history of Lety, they used a quite euphemistic term — calling it a ‘camp of forced concentration’. It means that someone invented a new term to avoid using the term ‘concentration camp’; this shows there is a strong will to deny what really happened there,” Pape told Czech Position.
“I think the fact that there is a pig farm is still run on the Lety site shows that in general the Roma are still considered to be second-class citizens, especially when you look at Lidice [the site of the massacre of in reprisal for the assassination of reprisal for the assassination of Nazi governor Reinhard Heydrich in 1942] and Terezín [the concentration camp known is German as Theresienstadt] and other places of Nazi persecution of the ethnic Czech or Jewish population in this country, it is not understandable … why the Roma victims don’t deserve similar recognition.”
Even though the Czechoslovak authorities made a major investigation into what happened at Lety— and found most of the perpetrators who caused the death of at least 241 children — none of the guilty persons was ever punished. “This fact is to very difficult for the Roma to accept,” Pape said.
At the same time, most Romani survivors of the Czech camps agree to speak about their experiences only if they are not shown or identified on local media, so great is their fear, even today, of persecution by skinheads and other racist groups active in Czech society. “The local government has also abused the fact that the Roma in the area, who are of Slovak origin, don’t want to protest because they don’t want to drawn attention to themselves.”
Auschwitz and ‘Uncle Mengele’
A law establishing Lety as a work camp for “nomads” was passed in March 1939 by Czechoslovakia’s proto-fascist Second Republic. In 1942, the Nazis designated the Lety facility as a “concentration camp” specifically for Roma. Those who survived the malnourishment and typhoid rampant in the Czech-run camps of Lety and Hodonin, met their death in a special “Gypsy family camp” at Auschwitz-Birkenau, but not without a fight, Pape said.
Entire Gypsy families were deported to Auschwitz—Birkenau. The first transport arrived on February 26, 1943, when the Gypsy Family Camp (Familienzigeunerlager) was still under construction; when completed, it comprised 32 residential and six sanitation barracks, according to the figures compiled by the death camp’s museum and memorial association. “Diseases killed the majority of the prisoners in the Zigeunerlager. Children deported to or born in the camp were particularly at risk, with noma (‘water cancer’), scarlet fever, measles, and diphtheria all endemic,” it notes.
The Germans intended to exterminate the Roma completely as early as May 1944. On May 15 that year, Gypsy Camp director Unterscharführer Georg Bonigut ordered the inmates to stay in their barracks. The next day, some 50 to 60 SS men surrounded the camp and attempted to force the prisoners out of the barracks. They attempted to force the prisoners out of the barracks, but failed to do so.
“In May 1944, thousands of Sinti and Roma [at Auschwitz] barricaded themselves in, ready to fight the SS men. They had found out that on that same day all of them were to be killed, by gas, at once. The SS decided not to attack, or try to kill these people,” Pape told Czech Position. “Unfortunately, later on, the ones who were still healthy enough to work were sent on to other concentration camps and only a few of them survived; and the children and old people were killed in a massacre in Auschwitz."
Unlike in the case of Jewish and other inmates, the Roma and Sinti interned at Auschwitz had been allowed to stay together as families because the Nazis had learned from past experience that separating Romani parents from their children made them impossible to control as a group and exploit for forced labor.‘They screamed day and night. Then their parents — I remember the mother’s name was Stella — managed to get some morphine, and killed the children to end their suffering.’
Survivors of Auschwitz have said the notorious Dr. Josef Mengele — known for his inhuman experiments and fascination with twins — seemed particularly keen on working with Romani children, who called him “Onkel Mengele.” He would bring them sweets and toys and personally escort them to the gas chamber.
“I remember one set of twins in particular: Guido and Ina, aged about four. One day, Mengele took them away,” Vera Alexander, a Jewish inmate at Auschwitz who looked after 50 sets of Romani twins, told the American scholar and rabbi Michael Berenbaum.
“When they returned, they were in a terrible state: They had been sewn together, back to back, like Siamese twins. Their wounds were infected and oozing pus. They screamed day and night. Then their parents — I remember the mother’s name was Stella — managed to get some morphine, and they killed the children in order to end their suffering.”
The liberation of the Auschwitz — 67 years ago this Friday — came too late for the Roma, as it did for over a million Jews, tens of thousands of Poles, political prisoners, homosexuals and “asocials” of all nationalities sent to the death camp. Nearly 22,000 Roma died in its gas chambers or from starvation and disease. Just months before the liberation by the Soviet Army, the Nazis closed the “Gypsy family camp,” gassing some 2,897 Roma on Aug. 2, 1944, a date marked by the Diaspora every year to commemorate the “Devouring.”
Jan. 27 is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, designated by the United Nations as the memorial to the victims of the Holocaust coinciding with the day of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. This article was first published in Czech Position last year.